Most Secret – John Dickson Carr (1964)

mostsecretThis is my final John Dickson Carr novel in what I consider his first period of historical mysteries.  It’s a fine run of books, started twenty years into Carr’s career, with most of his better known novels already behind him.  We kick off with The Bride of Newgate in 1950, and add an additional eight titles over a fourteen year period (Most Secret being the final one).  Carr would publish four additional historical mysteries before the end of his career, but that second run was an author in decline and is made up of books of less significance and a decidedly different feel.

Carr set these historical mysteries in the years from the seventeenth century all the way up to the time of his birth (The Witch of the Low Tide, taking place in 1906).  While these are all mysteries in some sense, they’re absolutely dredged in historical minutiae.  Periwigs, fencing, and all around swashbuckling don’t normally register as a thing for me, but Carr manages to craft stories from which you can’t look away.  There is a core mystery to each of these novels, yet it’s always on the periphery; these are much more about the adventure and history.  As a fan of Golden Age detective fiction, I’d read that last sentence and click away, but honestly, read Fire, Burn and tell me that you didn’t love it.

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Heaven Knowns Who – Christianna Brand (1960)

HeavenKnowsWhoOk, well, I finally did it.  I hit a wall with my Christianna Brand reading.  It was inevitable I suppose, although I liked to think it wouldn’t happen.  You see, with only three of Brand’s widely recognized mysteries left, I’ve been all to happy to dabble with the more obscure titles.  Why deplete my remaining stock with a book like Death in High Heels when I could explore something lesser known such as Court of Foxes or The Brides of Aberdar?  It hasn’t been a fruitless quest – it bore treasures such as The Rose in Darkness and A Ring of Roses – and for that I’m happy I took the less traveled road.

Heaven Knows Who is deservedly a lesser known Brand.  It wasn’t always so obscure, winning an Edgar Award in 1960 for “best fact crime” (or “true crime” as we would know it today).  The book seems to have since faded from the collective memory, and I can’t say that’s for no good reason.

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The Ghosts’ High Noon – John Dickson Carr (1970)

GhostsHighNoonThis may be the longest gap in my Carr reading since I started this whole thing.  I read The Blind Barber nearly three months ago, and I’ve only now gotten back to Carr.  It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy my last read – it was much better than everyone seems to think it is – but rather that The Ghosts’ High Noon is so damn long.  Well, not that long in the scheme of things –  a mere 300 pages – but longer than your typical Golden Age detective fiction (I realize we’re about twenty five years past the period on this one).  Plus, it’s stuffed in this Carroll and Graff edition that packs 300 pages in twice the height of your typical 40-60’s paperback, so it looks damn formidable.

Formidable because of when it was published – 1970.  John Dickson Carr’s better days had passed by the mid-sixties.  His previous novel, Papa La Bas (1968) has no redeeming value and was quite a chore to get through – dragged across three weekends if I recall correctly.  And so 300 pages of a potentially awful read wasn’t exactly an exciting prospect.

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The Gentleman From Paris – John Dickson Carr (1950)

GentlemanFromParis

I wouldn’t normally write about a single short story.  At least, I think I wouldn’t.  As much as I love a short mystery, I’ve mostly avoided the form since I started reading through John Dickson Carr’s library.  I know that a few of his shorts share elements with a novel or two, and I’d rather ruin the abbreviated form if it comes to that.  Of course, that shouldn’t keep me from digging into other author’s short stories, but somehow I’ve formed a bit of a habit.

Well, here I am, talking about a short story… by John Dickson Carr no less.  I’ve been making my way slowly through The Quintessence of Queen #2 (#1 is reviewed here), and figured I might as well read the one Carr story contained within.  Suffice to say, it was good enough that I’m actually writing more than a blurb about it.

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The Devil in Velvet – John Dickson Carr (1951)

devilinvelvetLet me get this out of the way really quick so that you can decide if you want to read further.  The Devil in Velvet is not a mystery novel.  Yeah, it kind of features the puzzle of a semi-impossible poisoning, but that’s merely a backdrop to a book that must have captured every last passion of late career John Dickson Carr’s infatuation with history.  Why read further?  The Devil in Velvet is often cited as one of Carr’s best historical mysteries (which I’ll refute), and understanding what the author was aiming for provides an interesting insight into his wider career.

Carr spent the last two decades of his career focusing primarily on historical mysteries.  The most well regarded, published between The Bride of Newgate (1950) and The Demoniacs (1962) were swashbuckling affairs – light on Carr’s trademark impossible crimes, but heavy on adventure and sword play.  I’ll admit that the description doesn’t appeal to me on the surface, but just read Fire, Burn or Captain Cut Throat, and I think most golden age mystery fans will find themselves turned on to a type of novel that they didn’t know they wanted.

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Papa La Bas – John Dickson Carr (1968)

papalabasEver since I started reading John Dickson Carr, one thing was clear – Papa La Bas was a title to steer clear of.  Across a career of over 70 novels, it’s inevitable that a writer is going to have a few duds.  What’s amazing is that out of the 50-some Carr titles that I’ve read, I’d only say that two are flat out bad and a handful have problems.  Papa La Bas appeared to be a consensus bad one, although I’ve oddly never stumbled upon a full blown blog review.

As I’ve detailed a few times by now, I’ve grown leery of the bad reputation that some Carr books have.  The Problem of the Wire Cage is a near classic.  Below Suspicion is an under appreciated gem.  I wouldn’t phone home about Patrick Butler for the Defense, but it was a decent read.  Even Carr’s supposedly dreadful final novel, The Hungry Goblin, was merely a mediocre read.

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Scandal at High Chimneys – John Dickson Carr (1959)

ScandalAtHighChimneysScandal at High Chimneys is one of the John Dickson Carr novels that has remained somewhat of an enigma to me.  Prior to reading it I had never seen a review on a spoiler free site, and thus lacked any real background for the story.  I knew that the novel fell into the first period of Carr historicals – the books published between 1950 (The Bride of Newgate) and 1964 (Most Secret) that take place in 1600-1800 era England (Captain Cut Throat being a exception in location, and The Witch of the Low Tide being an exception in period).  The works tend to be better regarded than the second period historicals, which take place in the US south (with the exception of The Hungry Goblin) and are considered to have come after Carr began his later-year decline.

With the first era historicals, you kind of know what to expect.  The plot will focus on the plight of someone wrongly accused of murder – either the male lead or his love interest.  The story will follow a race against time to clear the name of the falsely accused as the law forces of the time period close in.  While the core mystery may bear some passing resemblance to an impossible crime, there will never be Carr’s trademark strength of puzzle nor cleverness of solution.

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Death Comes as the End – Agatha Christie (1945)

DeathComesAsTheEnd2The phrase “historical mystery” instantly brings to mind John Dickson Carr.  The author shifted his focus from contemporary Golden Age mysteries starting with The Bride of Newgate (1950) and contributed heavily to the sub-genre up until his final novel – The Hungry Goblin.  His historical works cover ground between the seventeenth century (The Devil in Velvet) up until the time of his own birth (The Witch of the Low Tide) and I’ve seen several comments claiming that he basically created the historical mystery.

Or does Agatha Christie hold that title?  Death Comes as the End, published in 1945, came out five years before The Bride of Newgate.  Set in ancient Egypt, the tale of death stalking a high priest’s family certainly checks the boxes for historical and mystery.  It’s worth mentioning though that Carr had two prior historical works – the non-fiction The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936) and Devil Kinsmere (1934), although I haven’t read the later and I’m not certain that it qualifies as a mystery.

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Alas For Her That Met Me! – Christianna Brand as Mary Ann Ashe (1976)

AlasForHerFear not – I haven’t abandoned my focus on GAD mysteries and impossible crime in exchange for 1970’s romance novels (well, not that I’m admitting…).  Alas For Her That Met Me! is a late career novel by my personal Queen of Crime, Christianna Brand.  Yes, the cover and the title may have you scratching your head, but I assure you there’s a reason behind this madness.

I’ve absolutely loved the Brand books that I’ve read so far.  The author has a wit to her writing, a strange ability to forge a bond between the reader and her characters, and one of the most skilled hands at misdirection that I’ve yet to encounter.  Unfortunately, she only wrote 10 murder mysteries – or so I’ve been told.  I’ve found it difficult to really piece Brand’s career together, with the best reference I’ve been able to find being Wikipedia (never a good sign…).  There’s the Inspector Cockrill series, for which she’s known, and then a handful of lesser known mystery novels featuring Inspector Chucky and Inspector Charlesworth – of those, only Death in High Heels really garners any attention.  Brand seems to have ended her core mystery writing career in the mid-1950’s, with Tour de Force being her last “classic” title.

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The Bride of Newgate – John Dickson Carr (1950)

brideofnewgateThe Bride of Newgate is the first of John Dickson Carr’s historical mysteries.  Well, in a certain sense.  It was preceded by Devil Kinsmere (published under the alias of Roger Fairbairn) in 1934 (and later republished in 1964 as Most Secret) and the non-fiction The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey in 1936.  The Bride of Newgate was the beginning of what I see as Carr’s core historical run, lasting from its publishing in 1950 through to The Demoniacs in 1962.

Most of these stories follow somewhat of a formula.  A hero is accused of a crime that they didn’t commit and must race against time and conspiring forces to solve the mystery – a puzzle that is somewhat light by Carr’s typical standards.  Along the way he’ll win the heart and protect the honor of his one true love.  There will be daring feats and duels, often involving humiliating a brash member of the upper crust.  Oh, and time travel – there may be some of that.

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